Tony Leon: No holds barred

Tony Leon’s memoir about having been an ambassador provides tell-all insight into diplomatic life, writes Carien du Plessis

Tony Leon gives you his opinion even before you ask for it.

By the time we sit down for our interview, it’s been established former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death is sad (he’d encountered her several times); Leon had lunch with his successor, DA leader Helen Zille, last week, so not too much frost there; and he’s not impressed with Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele.

As it turns out, @TonyLeonSA also likes microblogging.

The Accidental Ambassador, about his recent three-year stint as South Africa’s official representative in Argentina, is very much in the same vein.

In fact, he tells such intimate details about his meetings with well-known people it ­discomforts even a seen-it-all ­senior hack like Business Day ­editor Peter Bruce, who said, at ­Leon’s book launch in Joburg on Wednesday night, it’s “unusual to be so open” about such private encounters.

At the same time, it’s these political kiss-and-tells that make the book a must-read for ­anyone with half an interest in ­political figures, diplomacy – or gossip.

One of these stories is how Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, on a private visit to Argentina, paid $1?200 for a ­dinner party for 10 at a top steakhouse – in cash. There is also a frank, somewhat entertaining, account of former minister Ngconde Balfour’s disgust at being posted to Botswana (he was in the same training class as Leon), and his unwillingness to even appear enthusiastic about it all.

Leon admits his and Zille’s relationship was strained at a point (but sadly, he doesn’t give much detail on this).

I ask if revelations like these burn bridges. To which Leon looks nonplussed. At their lunch last week, Zille seemed to have been fine with the book – if, in fact, she’d read it. “There are things that aren’t in the book,” Leon confesses. “Like confidential communications I would never disclose.”

Of course, his lack of ambition for a career in the civil service made being frank easier – including towards his bosses.

“I wasn’t looking for a job or saying I will mind my Ps and Qs because I wanted another mission. A lot of people watch their mouths because they are scared of their backs.”

His official feedback on criticism about South Africa’s stance on Libya didn’t garner him many fans in Pretoria, but he said he felt it was his duty to inform his superiors what other diplomats were saying.

Leon’s mission in Buenos Aires began in September 2009.

He says: “I tried to make it interesting, not a daily diary of what I did. These two extraordinary societies (South Africa and Argentina) are, on one level, so different but have so many similarities.”

The book – a page-turner – is written in a conversational style and presented as a blockbuster (the cover has a Bollywood movie-poster look to it) with a somewhat arrogant but capable hero presenting himself, in a self-deprecatory manner, as very human.

Leon said “the triumph of this book” was that he wrote it on his computer. His first book, the autobiography On the Contrary, was handwritten because he wasn’t computer literate.

In this book, Leon admits what he considers his weaknesses, but it’s clear he felt he did a good job – and the figures about trade and tourism growth to South Africa during his stint seem to prove it.

Leon wanted to make the book as accessible as possible. “The book could have been twice the length and I could have put in more things, but those things are only interesting to some.

“People want to know what it was like, in real time, and what you thought,” he says.

When he took the job, some criticised him for “selling out” by going to work for a government he had for years criticised as an opposition party leader.

But Leon says President Jacob Zuma told him over tea at Genadendal, the presidential residence in Cape Town, shortly before he was posted, that it was very important “SA in the world doesn’t just consist of ANC people”.

Leon says: “So I had no problem in representing SA. Everyone there thought it was good that I was from the other side.” He also said he believed he did the job in a professional manner.

Three of Leon’s colleagues were also in ambassadorial posts, but all have now returned. He just shrugs when asked whether any other DA representatives are in line for ambassadorial posts.

Has the experience of Argentinian politics made him soften his stance towards government?

“Look, I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid and come back softer. I have never thought of SA as rosy as a hallelujah chorus or as bad as the doomsayers make it,” he says.

“For all of SA’s challenges and things that have gone wrong here, there are things that we have done right and that set us apart.”

Argentina never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the military was ousted 30 years ago, and it “keeps on tripping the country up”.

By contrast, according to Leon, South Africa is “19 years into democracy, and we are doing it better. In Argentina, I saw the absence of things we got right in South Africa. But that doesn’t mean you have to put away your criticism.”

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